For my close reading I’ve chosen pages 15-18, beginning at the top with “If he’d been a different nigger he might have considered the galletazo…” and ending on the bottom of eighteen, before the next section, “The Moronic Inferno.”
Though the text is rich with personality and examples of excellent craft, I feel this section encapsulates, at least in this first half of the book, many or most of the different elements Diaz is working with. From character development, to humor, to the author’s general use of language, this section highlights and exemplifies the very voice of the novel.
Rather than break it down in random sections or themes, I think it best to go in order, discussing their various merits as I move from fifteen to eighteen in an effort to paint the broadest, clearest pictures of what I took away from this section (and, in a lot of ways, what I’ve taken from the whole book thus far).
We begin near the end of Oscar’s Cassanova period in which he dates both Olga and Maritza, and must choose between the two after a week of being with both. This first paragraph, this first sentence, showcases Diaz’s cultural use of the “N” word. Used less as a derogatory, racial slur, the word is used more as a means of identity. The way, I think, “nigga” is used in hip hop, and the black culture in general. While still abrasive, it is not laced with the power it typically holds, and when it appears, as it does in the beginning of this section, Diaz is giving his narrator a more authentic, colloquial tone. So, too, with the very last word in the sentence, “galletazo.” Diaz’s constant blending of Spanish with English helps marry Oscar’s Dominican heritage with his “black” American nationality.
He does this again in the very next sentence, with the phrase, “It wasn’t just that he had no kind of father to show him the masculine ropes” (15). Diaz intentionally breaks a grammar rule, using no kind of father instead of something like, “he didn’t have a father.” Again, it gives the narration authenticity, character, and flavor. As a student of writing, of letters, Diaz’s use of “no” here and in various other spots was often more jarring than his casual use of the “N” word. But it’s effective in establishing the narrative voice. I think, grammatical rules aside, Diaz’s tone takes some getting used to, especially depending on who’s narrating when, but once you find his rhythm it reads smooth and natural.
Continuing on in that paragraph we come across a good example of how punctuation is used in the book. Or, more specifically, not used, as Diaz delivers dialogue sans quotation marks. “(A puertorican over here? his mother scoffed. Jamas!)” (15). Again we have the blending of Spanish and English, but more important is Diaz’s lack of quotes before and after what Oscar’s mother says. Such is how the dialogue is handled throughout. It’s yet another interesting choice, but as with all of the author’s choices, it’s well done and effective. Not only does it add further “voice” to the narration, it lends the book a certain immersive quality. By removing the quotation marks, Diaz is nestling his dialogue directly into the fabric of the prose. The reader is not distracted by the marks and the flow of the sentences is left uninterrupted. We are not forced out of the story by a paragraph break. This approach, this lack of punctuation, is often initially distracting, more so than the marks themselves, but as soon you adjust to it, find that rhythm of things, it feels totally natural.
Finally in that paragraph we get another casual use of the “N” word as well as a series of exclamation marked sentences that do a good job of Diaz’s use of imagery. “…how Olga had cried! Shaking like a rag in her hand-me-downs and in the shoes that were four sizes too big! Snots pouring out her nose and everything!” (15). Yet another example of style effectively enhancing the narration with “Snots” instead of snot, the exclamation marks themselves (something I’ve been taught are generally considered a “no, no” in writing), and the pathetic, sad picture of the too-big shoes. Diaz has this wonderful way of throwing you into the action, placing the reader in the present for the briefest of seconds before returning to the literal-past tense of the prose, of the relative expository nature the story has. This paragraph is a great example of that, as it both tells and shows Oscar deliberating and then breaking up with Olga.
It’s important that, in a story operating largely on exposition and “telling” that we get these moments of action. Of “showing.” Another way Diaz breaks things up, keeps it fresh, is in his use of humor, like on page 17 when he writes, “his (Oscar’s) cool index, already low, couldn’t have survived that kind of a paliza, would have put him on par with the handicapped kids and with Joe Locorotundo, who was famous for masturbating in public.” Dry, relatable, poignant, and though often at the expense of Oscar himself, humor like this is crucial in keeping the story entertaining, and also in helping to keep the tone relatively light amidst a series of decidedly heavy things.
Which brings me to the end of the section, and in what I feel is the most important part. Diaz does a lot in 15-18 showing off craft, the narrative voice, etc. But here, at the end, we get a quiet moment of genuine emotion. Reading Oscar Wao one may feel a lot of things, but the pace of the book, that rhythm of the tone, is quick. Emotions both dim and bright collide into one another within the confines of the paragraph and are often given little room to breathe. At the end of eighteen, however, we see Oscar move through his adolescence watching Maritza from his bedroom window as he reads books and paints miniatures. We are given a quiet, focused look at the character of our hero and are able to empathize with his plight. “He didn’t imagine that she remembered their kissing—“ Diaz writes, “but of course he could not forget” (18). And then he lets it hang in the air for the reader to take in and relate to and feel something for. It is not crammed in the middle somewhere, lost in the shuffle of the style or the over-arching story, but at the end, where it can breathe. A quiet moment in a sea of loud ones. And a final, perfect example of Diaz’s masterful use of nuance that make Oscar Wao such an engaging, effective read.